The Orlando Magic are heading into year three of the post-Dwight Howard era. So far, they have a combined record of 43-121 since his departure, but have managed to form a nice young nucleus. With the experience they’ve gained and some additional veteran leadership, the pieces may be in place for the Magic to push closer to the top eight of the Eastern Conference than they’ve been able to these last two years.
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Orlando Magic.
Five Guys Think…
All of a sudden, the Southeast Division is pretty nasty, with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all looking like potential playoff teams in an undeniably weak Eastern Conference. Orlando, meanwhile, is farther away from experiencing massive postseason success, but they’ve drafted more than enough promising kids the last few drafts to justify optimism for the future. Victor Oladipo should take a huge step forward this year, while mainstays like Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris add plenty to the mix, as well. Newcomers Channing Frye, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton make this young group even more interesting, though the Ben Gordon signing remains among the most confusing of the offseason. There are a lot of new players to integrate here, many of whom still have some on-court maturation to experience before the Magic can compete seriously for a playoff spot.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
Ever since the Orlando Magic parted ways with All-Star center Dwight Howard in 2012, the franchise has taken a slow and methodical approach toward their rebuilding process. Fans of the franchise shouldn’t expect anything different this season as the club had cap space to be players in free agency this past summer but opted not to make any huge splashes. What the franchise has been able to secure though is a solid collection of young players on cap friendly contracts. It is going to take time to rebuild the Magic back into a title contender, but the team’s brass is sticking to their blueprint – collecting young assets and refusing to give huge deals to aging players in free agency.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
Rather than continuing to stockpile picks and young players, it seems that Orlando actually wants to compete for a playoff berth this season, as evidenced by their decision to sign veteran free agents like Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Willie Green. The Magic have an intriguing young core with Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn among others, and it seems management wants them to take the next step and get a taste of success this season. The Magic should be good defensively in 2014-15, as Payton, Oladipo, Gordon and Harkless are all solid defenders. The question is, will they be able to generate enough offense to beat teams? That’s where like newcomers Frye and Gordon need to step in and score the ball along with Harris, Vucevic and Oladipo, who have shown they can produce on offense when given touches. It’s hard to imagine Orlando finishing ahead of any of their Southeast Division peers in the standings, but they should have a slightly better record this season and see some internal development from their young core. Orlando is heading in the right direction, but they’re still a few years away from making any noise.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
With Channing Frye and Ben Gordon added to what was already a talented young core, the Orlando Magic continue on in their pursuit of greatness in the post-Dwight Howard era. The Miami HEAT’s additions after LeBron James’ departure, Lance Stephenson’s signing with the Charlotte Hornets and the continued progression of John Wall and the Washington Wizards means that the Magic will be battling with the Hawks for fourth place in the NBA’s Southeast Division. Still, that doesn’t mean that the Magic aren’t on the right path. With Arron Afflalo’s departure, minutes will open up for Victor Oladipo and he will have every opportunity to build upon the flashes of brilliance he displayed so admirably last year. Alongside Nikola Vucevic, the Magic certainly have two building blocks for their future and now hope that Elfrid Payton can fulfill the lofty expectations his impressive pre-draft workouts have yielded. With the aforementioned Gordon and Frye, the Magic have added two effective floor spacers who will help balance the floor for a team that ranked in the lower-half of the league in three-point percentage last season. In the distant future, the Magic will certainly emerge as one of the more talented teams in the Eastern Conference and this season, especially with the under-the-radar acquisition of Luke Ridnour, the Magic should improve on last season’s paltry 23-59 record. But for this season, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways away.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
This is the season where we should be able to form a much better understanding over whether the people calling the shots in Orlando really know what they’re doing. There have been some positive things that have happened over the course of the last two years, even though there isn’t many wins to show for it. If a major jump toward night in and night out competitiveness isn’t made this season, it’s time to evaluate whether the right head coach and general manager are in place to see this rebuilding project through to where it needs to go. On the court, the spotlight is going to be firmly on Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, who are coming up on the end of their rookie contracts. They’re going to want a lot of money in order to sign an extension early, but Magic ownership is going to be less inclined to open up their checkbook if they don’t see the playoffs in sight for 2015-2016. Their division is loaded this season, so anything more than a last place finish is going to be a very encouraging sign about the future. Even if they do end up in the cellar again, though, as long as there’s significant improvement, that’s all that matters.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: With the departure of Arron Afflalo over the summer, the competition to lead the Magic in offense will be wide open. Last season, Afflalo paced the Magic with 18.2 points per game and was often the team’s best player on a nightly basis. The Magic’s point of emphasis during June’s draft seemed to be adding defensive-minded players in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, players not known to light it up on the scoreboard so the team will likely turn to someone already on the roster to pace its scoring each night. The Magic’s top offensive player could very well be Tobias Harris, who will be entering his fourth season in the league come October. Harris was acquired in the J.J. Redick deal from the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline two seasons ago and became a go-to scorer for the Magic for the 27 games after the deadline averaging 17.3 points in those contests. The trade created an opportunity for Harris to really play, as it more than tripled his minutes per game from 11.6 a night with the Bucks to 36.1 a night with the Magic. His scoring increased from 4.9 to 17.3 points a night during that season. While Harris came out on fire during those 27 games two seasons ago, he fell back down to earth a little bit last season, averaging 14.6 points a game while shooting just 26 percent from three-point range. Harris suffered an ankle injury in the preseason last year and was said to have never fully recovered. Despite the dip in offense last season, Harris was second in scoring behind Afflalo and still managed to turn in some great performances. One of Harris’ best performances of the season came against the L.A. Lakers on Jan. 24, when he scored 28 points on nine-of-15 shooting while adding 20 rebounds. Harris is said to be completely healthy now and should be poised to lead the team in scoring.
Top Defensive Player: The Magic’s defense last season was good for a middle-of-the-pack ranking. The team gave up 102 points per game to opponents, which was good for 17th-best in the league. The team’s best individual defender is Maurice Harkless. The 21-year-old has the size and athleticism to become a perennial defender and, because of that, is often tasked with guarding the league’s top wings in which Harkless holds his own on most nights. In addition to Harkless, the team has brought in defensive players in Gordon and Payton through this year’s draft and Oladipo through last year’s draft. The Magic drafted those three players in hopes to bring the team to the top of the league in defense and they could very well be there in a couple of seasons. At 6’4, Payton has great length to guard opposing point guards and his quick hands will enable him to knock a lot of balls loose. Gordon’s athleticism is outstanding and will allow him to stay very active on the defensive side of the ball. Oladipo had a very solid first season on the defensive side and finished tied for 15th in the league with 1.61 steals per game.
Top Playmaker: This position will also be up for grabs this season with Jameer Nelson and Afflalo no longer in the picture. The Magic will turn to rookie point guard Payton to lead the offense and be the team’s playmaker. Payton has earned early comparisons to Rajon Rondo after his showing in the Orlando Summer League and overall skillset. Like Rondo, Payton isn’t a great shooter but showed the ability to find his teammates on the court. In five games in the Summer League, Payton averaged 9.2 points, seven assists and 5.2 rebounds per game, including two near triple-doubles. Last season, the Magic experimented with Oladipo at point guard, but the outcome was met with mixed results. After drafting Payton, Oladipo will go back to his natural two-guard position and thus become a better scoring option for the Magic. Payton’s ability to spread the ball around will enable head coach Jacque Vaughn to get guys like Harris, Harkless and newcomer Channing Frye looks from three-point range. The only question to Payton becoming the team’s top playmaker is how quickly Vaughn inserts him into the starting lineup.
Top Clutch Player: The Magic bringing Payton in to become the point guard will allow Oladipo to play more off of the ball and provide the team with a go-to player during crunch time. Oladipo’s quickness proved successful last season in allowing the 6’4 guard to drive through the lane for the easy layup or the kick out to the open shooter. Oladipo looked a bit erratic at times, but learned how to find more control as the season went on. After playing through the ups and downs of changing positions last season, Oladipo will surely know what it takes to play both guard positions and that will only help him moving forward to eliminate some of the costly mistakes he made. One benefit of no longer having Afflalo on the team is that the majority of the touches Afflalo got will likely now go to Oladipo.
Top Unheralded Player: Perhaps the guy that doesn’t get as much as love as he should is Kyle O’Quinn. The 6’10 big man found his way into the starting lineup in the second half of last season and never looked back. For O’Quinn, it really was a season of two-halves as he averaged just 4.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and nearly one block per game prior to the All-Star break. After the All-Star break, he averaged 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game as a starter in 19 games. While starting, O’Quinn gave the Magic a legitimate shot blocker next to center Nikola Vucevic, which Vucevic doesn’t do nearly as well. Next season will be a pivotal season for O’Quinn as he’ll likely be back to coming off of the bench with the arrival of Frye and he’ll need to find that same aggressiveness he showed while starting to lead the second team off of the bench.
Best New Addition: The Magic had quite a busy summer between the draft and free agency. The Magic surprised many when they opted to bring in Channing Frye at $32 million over four years. They also shocked many by handing Ben Gordon a two-year, $9 million deal. In addition to Frye and Gordon, the Magic also brought in veterans Luke Ridnour and Willie Green. Frye will prove to be the best new addition out of all of those players and it may not even be close. Frye will be able to provide a team in desperate need of three-point shooting as the Magic were ranked 19th in the league last season at 35 percent. His ability to open up the floor will pay huge dividends for players like Oladipo, Payton and Harkless as that spacing will open up driving lanes. On a team that will be looking for a leading scorer, Frye is a player that could give his cousin Harris competition. A career 39 percent shooter from three-point range, Frye will surely be able to put up some points for the Magic.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
1. Nikola Vucevic: Standing at 7’0 tall, Vucevic is one of the most underrated centers in the league. Vucevic has the chance to drop a double-double on any given night, as he averaged 14.2 points and 11 rebounds per game last season. He has shown the ability to be an excellent rebounder, grabbing at least 10 rebounds in 40 out of a possible 57 games last season, 15 rebounds in nine games and twice grabbing at least 20 boards. Though he isn’t a great defender, he also has the ability to space the floor a little bit as he can shoot the mid-range shot well. When talking about the Magic’s young core of players, Vucevic is often viewed as one of the most important on the team.
2. Aaron Gordon: The Magic’s decision to pass on Dante Exum with the fourth pick in June’s draft surprised many but when they decided to use that pick on Gordon, it was even more surprising. Gordon’s lack of shooting turned a lot of teams off, but the 6’9 Arizona product has something that can’t be taught: athleticism. Gordon has the ability to jump out of the gym and it’s that athleticism that he’ll use to defend opposing forwards. His offensive game is a work in progress, but he can use that athleticism on pick-and-roll plays and cutting to the basket to help kick start his offensive game. The Magic drafted him because he is young, works hard and is a guy that they’ll be able to build up in the future.
3. Maurice Harkless: The young Harkless has already been mentioned as the team’s best defender, but he is no slouch on offense either. Although he regressed during his sophomore year with the Magic, there is no reason to believe he’ll continue that trend. Regardless of if he starts or not, Harkless should still see 20-25 minutes a game, which is plenty of time to do work. Harkless worked tirelessly last summer to improve his three-point shot and it showed. He raised his three-point percentage from 27 percent during his rookie year to 38 percent last season. Harkless has been hard at work again this summer improving his game and it appears to be working as he’s said to have more control in his game and more awareness. There is still much to like in Harkless’ game and heading into his third season in the league, the time is now for him to prove what type of player he can be.
4. Victor Oladipo: Last season, many thought Oladipo should have been the Rookie of the Year given his second-half performance. But even after missing out on the award, Oladipo still proved to be valuable for the Magic. He went through some growing pains at point guard, but that’s a given for a rookie transitioning to a different position. It’s those growing pains that will enable him to become a better player in his second year as he switches back to playing more of a shooting guard role. There will be times when the guard will be counted on to become the team’s go-to guy and there’s plenty of evidence to support that he’ll be ready for the call.
5. Tobias Harris: The big thing to like with Harris is his ability to really help the Magic’s offense. There may appear to be some competition for the starting small forward spot, but Harris should be the one getting the start over Harkless. At this point, Harris has proven to be more productive on the offensive side of the ball and that will certainly be an area in which the Magic will need help with. Harris was seen training with Carmelo Anthony over the summer and that should only help Harris improve his game.
– Cody Taylor
The Magic have a lot of young talent on the team and the sky is the limit for them. The team really hammered home the idea of defense by adding Gordon and Payton through the draft. The team should improve on last season’s mid-ranking defense and look to get into the top-10.
The Magic’s young core of Harris, Harkless, Vucevic, O’Quinn and Oladipo are growing in the league together and have developed great chemistry on and off of the court. The Magic want to build a team full of high-character guys and they seem to have that. This aspect of the team may be underrated and when the time comes for them to start winning, the chemistry portion of the equation will already be solved.
– Cody Taylor
The question everyone seems to have is where will the offense come from? While Payton and Gordon are praised on the defensive side of the ball, they are far from praised on the offensive side. Replacing Afflalo’s 18.2 points per game will prove to be a difficult task, so the team will lean heavily on Harris, Vucevic, Frye and Oladipo to make up Afflalo’s production.
As mentioned above, the team finished just inside the top 20 in the league in three-point shooting, but will the addition of Frye prove enough to be the solution? The Magic also added Gordon, a career 40-percent three-point shooter, but he hasn’t received significant playing time in over a year and has reportedly clashed with just about every coach he has had.
– Cody Taylor
The Salary Cap
The Magic have 15 players under contract, 14 guaranteed. Young big Dewayne Dedmon’s $816k deal isn’t locked in, representing the only possible roster spot should Orlando want to add a player through free agency. Without Dedmon, the team can get up to $8.3 million in cap space. The Magic have not been shy about buying out unwanted players. Waived players Glen Davis, Al Harrington, Jameer Nelson and Anthony Randolph will earn a combined $14.2 million from the franchise this year. Orlando may still look to use their cap room to facilitate a trade, perhaps adding another squad’s castoff in return for draft considerations. If the Magic eventually climbs to the cap, the organization will receive the $2.7 million Room Exception.
– Eric Pincus
It probably seems a lifetime ago for Magic fans, but the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers was a mere two years ago. The Magic have assembled a group of solid young players since that point, but one that for now appears devoid of a great scorer or a defensive stopper among the bigs. A pattern has emerged among the last three Magic draftees – Oladipo, Gordon and Payton – all of whom are athletic players with great defensive potential who project as poor to very poor outside shooters. While the plan appears to center around building an athletic perimeter defense, it bears repeating that such young players are rarely effective defensively despite their physical gifts.
As for this year’s outlook, the Magic’s point differential suggests that they played more like a 26-win team than the 23-59 squad they were last year. Almost everyone left over from last year projects to be better this year, but they also lost their best player in Arron Afflalo. Nonetheless, the Magic were not as bad on defense as might have been expected last year, ranking 17th in points per possession. Unfortunately, they also were 29th offensively, which seems unlikely to improve much with the loss of Afflalo and the addition of two newcomers in Payton and Gordon who cannot shoot at all, even though Channing Frye is around to open up the floor with his pick and pops.
Payton and Gordon get it right away on defense. Aaron Gordon proves worthy of starting at the four, and the Magic’s defense rockets into the top-10 with an aggressive, switching strategy. Oladipo improves from the perimeter in his second season, and Frye, Ben Gordon and Evan Fournier provide enough shooting to open things up a little bit. The Magic avoid the bottom five offensively, and crack 30 wins.
The Magic play Gordon exclusively on the perimeter, and starting smalls Payton, Oladipo and Aaron Gordon cannot shoot well enough to prop up the offense even with Frye around. The young trio’s lack of experience manifests defensively, and that combined with the lack of interior defense keeps the Magic out of the top half of the league on that end.
The Burning Question
With the summer of additions, how much closer are the Magic to the playoffs?
With the Eastern Conference becoming increasingly better, there are a lot of teams on the rise vying to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, but the Magic may not be quite there yet. It seems like the pieces are there for the team, but those pieces will take some time to develop. It might be another season before the Magic can do what the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) did last season and finally make the playoffs after years of remaining on the outside looking in. The Magic won 23 games last season, good for third-worst in the conference so an ideal season for them would be to win somewhere in the 30-game range, but a seven-game improvement may even be a stretch with so many questions surrounding the offense.
– Cody Taylor
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.